Time needs a Third Dimension too!

May 30, 2016, Chennai

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The style of narration of the Mahabharata (I mean that of Vaisampayana’s narrative of Vyasa Bharata) and the spectrum of Time that the entire narrative covers are two of the important factors that are to be kept in mind, in order that one may have a clear grasp of the strange admixture of characters and the seemingly incongruous values that some of the characters—the story of Uddalaka and Swetaketu for instance—represent.


  This, I consider is very important from the point of view of many a reader who looks at the widely varying social values that many different characters appearing in a single book and to whom it would seem conflicting.

Time is one important and crucial factor in the story.  Unlike Ramayana, where Time travels always forwards like a river, the flow of time is not as simple as that in the Mahabharata.  If one eliminates the first few chapters of Valmiki Ramayana (even this much would not be necessary in Kamba Ramayana, where we do not have these scenes at all) where Kusa and Lava appear in the initial scenes, singing the story of Sita (Valmiki named it Sitayana—sitaya  charitam mahat) composed by Valmiki, the story begins from the beginning and ends with the ending.  It covers the story of a maximum of three generations—Dasaratha, Rama and his children.  Of course, the focus remains on Generation 2, Rama.  The style of narration is direct and events flow as they flow in everyday life, the cause preceding the effect.  Rama is born, there is a purpose behind his birth and he grows up, gets married, goes on exile, loses his wife, goes in search of her, kills Ravana and fulfils his life’s intended mission, hands his kingdom over to his sons Kusa and Lava, apportions the country to the children of his brothers as well and they all ascend to their original Abode.  Though I have missed the Vali episode and the Agni Pravesa as well as the exiling of Sita, I have not missed any of the major events in the story and these events flow in this very sequence.

Not in the case of Mahabharata.  There, one has to remember that though Vyasa composed the Epic during the lifetime of Pandava – Kaurava brothers, neither was the story recited by Vyasa himself in person nor was it recited in the lifetime of any of the heroes of the Epic.  The narration begins in the time of Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjuna.  And so, the whole story takes place as a flashback.  Not as the events take shape, or during the lifetime of the hero, as in the case of Ramayana.  The spectrum of the story does not stop with Kaurava – Pandavas.  It starts with King Yayati and his father Nahusha.  Duryodhana and Yudhishthira come in the line of Yayati, some 44 generations later!  Yayati had five sons and Kuru Vamsa starts from the fifth son of Yayati, Puru.  For this reason, I am tempted to term the Ramayana as a ‘personal diary style portrayal’ and the Mahabharata as a chronicle.  In other words, it is a record of events in a diary fashion, but narrated two generations later, interspersed with events belonging to different Time scales.  

As this happens to be a narration first by Ugrasrava Sauti, son of Romaharshana (also spelt Lomaharshana), subsequently taken over by Vaisampayana, the entire Epic moves necessarily in the form of a conversation.  ‘The diary of events’ is interrupted every now and then and the Time Machine flies thousands of years back, just like that, and comes back to its original position, when the mission is completed.  Janamejaya would now want to know about a Pratipa, a Pravira, or someone else of his ancestors.  Or it may so happen that he would want to know more of an issue; or of a person connected with that issue.  The conversation would take a diversion and the Time would flow a few thousand years back, only to resume its course again a few hundred pages away.  Not to mention the stories which are narrated inside the story that Janamejaya is listening to.  If Janamejaya wants to hear the story of Bhrigu, we would soon be seeing Bhrigu listening to another story from say Narada!  But the amazing fact is that, with all this kind of detours and digressions, the persons in conversation—Janamejaya, Vaisampayana, Sauti etc.—return to the original story exactly from the point where it was left at, when the detour commenced.  That is where the narrative skills of Vyasa excel that of any penman of any time.  

Looking as we are at the Epic now, the forward and backward movements of Time are not readily perceptible.  Time has lost its varying dimensions to us and it looks simply flat and level from here.  It is just a photograph of two-dimensions from our angle of vision, from this distance of time. And that’s where we lose some of the most important visions into the Epic, where ‘depth’ matters and Time, from our angle, has lost that dimension in particular and demands a lot of perceptive structuring to understand events and things in perspective. If the name Mahabharata represents something which is very old to all of us, one has to accept and be alive to the fact that there was a time of yore, of old, in the case of the characters portrayed in that ‘ancient Epic’ too!  And one should get trained to separate the old from the ancient in many cases, in order to have a better perspective.

The point I wanted to make was this.  If there were some 44 generations between Yayati and Kaurava – Pandavas, then the time frame of the story (assuming a minimum of 50 years per generation) encompasses a minimum of 2500 years of human history.  That is to say, a time frame of anything from 2500-4000 or more years before the time of Janamejaya!  Naturally therefore we find the co-existence of individual and social values of diverse and varied kinds in one book.  As we all are aware, some individual and social values like Truth, Abstinence from Killing, Abhorrence of jealousy etc. remain unalterable and eternal, while certain other (shall we say, most of the other) social and personal values undergo constant changes.  And that’s how we find several narratives in the Epic start with the qualifying phrase ‘in the olden days’.  When one comes across this phrase in the Mahabharata, one has necessarily to remember that this ‘olden days’ was a real ‘those days’ story narrated to the people living at the time of Mahabharata!  

That was one major point I wanted readers to keep in mind in order to stay in focus.  Now there is one more important aspect to remember before we take up anything worthwhile.

(To be contd.)